The Millennial Metric Q&A: Kourtney Garrett (Dallas, TX)

Kourtny Garrett serves as President & CEO of Downtown Dallas, Inc. and has been dedicated to the revitalization of Downtown Dallas in various roles since 2002. With a resume spanning 15 years in the development of livable communities, her passion for strong and kinetic city centers carries from Dallas to abroad. Her primary focus of responsibilities in these roles included the creation of strategic marketing programs for Downtown, as well as planning, government and community relations activities, and economic development. In addition, in 2009 Kourtny was instrumental in privatizing the management of eight Downtown parks. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NewCities: You’re the CEO of a downtown organization but you recently made the difficult decision to move out of downtown with your family. What drove that decision?

Kourtny Garrett: So, my husband and I have been together for 18 years and have always, from day one, lived very urban. In our mid-20s we lived downtown because we wanted to be close to work and to be in the middle of the action. We checked every box — young professionals, no kids. And then when the kids came along, we wanted to continue that lifestyle, plus it was important to me to expose our children to a community that’s civically engaged and diverse. Being in the center of these experiences Downtown can provide such richness as you’re growing up.

But my two seven-year-old twins, opposite gender, had been sharing one small bedroom in a townhouse and were growing out of it. And I began to realize the time was drawing near that our parents would need assistance, and we would take our turn as the landing pad and gathering place for family. As the CEO of the Downtown organization, I know the residential stock here backwards and forwards, but I wanted that gut check, so in my quest I even challenged a broker: “Find me a four bedroom. I don’t care if it’s 1,200 square feet. We don’t need the yard. We don’t want upkeep. But we need proper rooms and a floor plan that functions for a family.”

And we simply couldn’t find it here. So, for us, it wasn’t about schools or a backyard or some of those traditional decision points. It was truly about housing product and right now, so early in our residential revitalization phase, we haven’t reached that diversification in Downtown Dallas yet.

NewCities: What would developers in Downtown Dallas say about why this housing type is missing? Do they not believe there’s a market there? Or is it a conscious strategy to create a downtown that is a perpetually stream of 25-year-olds?

Kourtny Garrett: It’s probably closer to the first two — at least I hope so. Downtown Dallas — even in its heyday in the ‘50s when we had Theater Row on Elm Street and major department stores — was never a true dense residential neighborhood. There were single family homes on the outskirts and some shopkeepers living above businesses. But there was never a residential concentration in downtown.

So, this notion of people living in downtown has come about within the last 20 years. The first wave of residents was young professionals ready to pioneer this area. But there’s now a collective desire, willingness, and recognition that in order for the core of our city to be sustainable, we need to diversify that population.

But we keep hearing from the development community that the financials just don’t work. Back when I had my For Sale sign out, a developer who’s building a new project drove by and I begged, “If you’ll build me a four-bedroom in your project, I’ll stay!” And he just flat out said, “Kourt, I just can’t, it doesn’t work.”

So we have to demonstrate how financially the model can be changed. Because right now we’re a city that has embraced high density, multifamily, rental stock, in the core downtown; 80% of our stock is still rental. So, our work now is to look at how we can prove the ROI for that diversified stock. And that includes affordability, as well as product types like family-friendly housing and retirement communities.

NewCities: So how do you create this product type in a way that’s affordable?

Kourtny Garrett: When we hear the words, “It just doesn’t work,” we’re asking the development community to explain it in numbers. If it can be done in other markets, particularly on the coasts, why not in Dallas?

The challenge may be in the fact that our market has an incredibly low cost of living compared to comparable cities. Or perhaps the lending community hasn’t bought into Downtown. Is it construction costs in the South? I’m sure there are many factors, but we want to really dive into the details through third-party analysis and begin to define and truly understand the deltas and why they exist.

I think another answer will be public-private partnerships. I have no doubt that if it’s not today, that within the next 10 years, there will be a true delta because of how quickly we’re seeing land prices rise. In the case of my townhouse, I sold it for twice what I paid for it. And I only lived there for seven years. So, yay for me on one hand, but I couldn’t afford to go back and buy my townhouse today. And we’re a dual-income family. This is a critically important factor in how we ensure we are building an inclusive and equitable neighborhood. In order for Dallas to be strong, we need to have that diverse downtown, and that will only be a reality of we are deliberate in the way we plan housing choice in the future.

But this is business, so we’ve got to show positive economics to the development and lending communities, so we’re working with our municipality, and then hopefully with state and national legislation to see what type of programs can be created to, I hate to say it so dramatically, but save our cities.

In Denver, which has created some impactful affordable housing programs, several leaders anecdotally shared with me that one market observation in their downtown was a loss of commercial tenants because the residential market was pricing-out talent. And when you get into that cycle, then you really start to see trouble for these city centers that are so heavily driven by commercial office. Corporate relocation prospects today tell us that their decisions heavily weigh the importance of talent recruitment, talent retention, talent quality of life … talent, talent, talent. So, it’s vital that we have places where employees thrive, not struggle to meet ends.

NewCities: Your new neighborhood Oak Cliff is a suburb if you measure it in terms of distance outside the central business districts, but it’s not what people think of as white-picket-fence suburbia. It prompts the question of what is a suburb and what could it be?

Kourtny Garrett: Our urban-planning strategies, culminating in our Downtown plan, The 360 plan, define our City Center it as outside a two-mile radius from the center downtown, the Central Business District (CBD). Where I live now sits right on the cusp of that radius, and is easily connected to Downtown by bike and streetcar, so I would hardly call it a suburb. However, our CBD, like many in America, is defined by freeways. So those of us in neighborhoods that are a mix of single and multi-family housing— like ours in Oak Cliff — feel like urban neighborhoods, even though a freeway divides us from the core of Downtown. To me, that connectivity, walkability and intangible “urban feel” is the difference between urban and suburban.

The social aspects of a neighborhood I think also contribute to its urban/suburban qualities. In Downtown Dallas, one of the greatest draws is the proximity to people with like minds, the diversity within the neighborhood, and civic engagement — people who will mobilize on policy issues and issues that affect the neighborhoods. I think you find those qualities in Oak Cliff and many near-in neighborhoods, too.

NewCities: A recent walkability report by Chris Leinberger found that the neighborhoods with the highest social equity are the ones traditionally under-invested in, because they were basically multiethnic and/or majority, minority neighborhoods. And that the gilded suburbs, such as North and West of downtown, had lower social equity scores. Is Oak Cliff and nearby Deep Ellum and East Jefferson starting to gentrify now as you’re seeing people leave downtown? Will they become unaffordable hipsturbias?

Kourtny Garrett: It would be blind to say that the development and the revitalization of these near-in neighborhoods is not creating gentrification. The question is, is it gentrification and/or displacement? Are we offering safer, better options for existing residents as we redevelop, or are we pushing people out because they simply “cant afford it anymore.”

As a city, we have been slow to find strategies that prevent displacement. We – the global ‘city as a whole’ we — are talking about it. I sense an increased awareness, and we’re getting closer to creating the policies that will better protect neighborhoods as development comes in, but I can’t say that we truly have the answer yet. In fact, I will very truthfully say I believe Dallas is behind the curve.

NewCities: Many young academics are asking how people can age into a downtown and many are prioritizing transportation because it’s measurable. As a practitioner on the ground, where have you seen the most bang for your buck in infrastructure investments to make downtown livable for people in their 30s and 40s raising families?

Kourtny Garrett: In 2002, we didn’t have a single ground level CVS, not a 7-Eleven, certainly not a grocery store. So, our first priority was bringing in retail and services. Then you start to layer in schools and a parks master plan, which has brought about 88 acres of green space to downtown. We’re opening four new parks over the next four years. Those spaces help knit neighborhoods together and give it a sense of community to our residents.

For schools, there are two charters and two high schools that are Dallas Independent School District schools, but we don’t have traditional open public schools — yet. We have worked with Dallas ISD for almost a decade to advocate for an elementary school. When we started this process, I went to Dallas ISD]with 260 kids under the age of four in Downtown, but that wasn’t particularly impressive. They’re typically interested in looking at immediate enrollment and as an institution have a hard time thinking in an entrepreneurial way

Why is this key? Parents have told us that if they have an option to stay downtown, they will. It’s what I said about my now 8-year old twins. Our Downtown residents are a very engaged community and generally supportive of public school systems. And if you look at our growth projections, simply based on the number of units that are under construction and consistently staying at 90% occupied or above, that demand is only going to continue to grow. Which I think is a pretty logical conversation to you and me, but not so much when you’re talking to such a large institution like a school district to say, “Hey, take a chance on us.”

However, fast forward: thanks to continued advocacy, changing demographics and some innovative minds in District leadership, we will open our first Dallas ISD elementary school in Downtown this fall. And we are working with them on longer term planning that will add two high schools, and a middle school.

NewCities: There’s this idea emerging that millennial parents are more engaged with urban schools and perhaps willing to apply sweat equity to help turn around struggling schools. But we’re also seeing things like Hall Park, a classic suburban office park turned into a mixed-use walkable “town center” by Craig Hall, designed to be a walkable oasis for millennials who might want very large homes on the urban periphery. Do you ever worry that the urban renaissance of America will reverse course?

Kourtny Garrett: These suburban-urban centers definitely keep me up at night because they don’t have to carry the burden of public infrastructure like we do in Dallas; for example, DART. So, they’re incentivizing corporations to move and incentivizing developers to build, because they’re not carrying much public infrastructure cost. And some are built with the qualities we value walkability, proximity, livability. But downtown Dallas is still the largest commercial office center, the largest center of jobs. And jobs keep coming. AT&T is re-establishing and growing their campus here and we recently announced an Uber headquarters coming to our area. Craig Hall is a great Downtown Dallas developer and we have others, like Lucy Billingsley, who are active in Downtown and suburban markets, so I get and respect what they’re doing. But you still can’t compete with the authenticity, the history and the social and cultural value of being in the true city center.

NewCities: But is that still true after COVID-19, especially with the Metroplex being one of the hardest-hit cities in the country in terms of both new infections and furloughs and job losses? Are you worried you’ll lose all the progress you’ve made over the last decade?

Kourtny Garrett: As we now sit in the throes of a pandemic and a nation-wide call for long-overdue attention and action to address injustice and equity, our goals for diversified housing in Downtown Dallas could not be more important. Our world has changed in such a short time in ways no one could have imagined and as the center of the city, Downtown has been an epicenter.

The livelihood and success of Downtown Dallas is critical for the social and economic health of our entire city. We remain the largest tax base and employer. Downtown is fastest growing residential area of the city and we are the hub of public transportation. Downtown can and should be the place where all of Dallas comes together.

So, both as an economic recovery strategy and one to prove our actions and intent of building an inclusive place, we have double-downed on our efforts to define the challenges for diversified housing and identify a path toward greater balance, access and opportunity. Unemployment has the potential to be detrimental to retaining the current market, so our organization is assisting residents with federal, state and local programs for rental assistance and we’ve worked with our regional Chamber on the development of a Jobs for Displaced workers platform. We are encouraging private development that continues to move forward (in this market we are fortunate to have many projects still progressing) to be intentional and consider accessible housing for more than just the “young professional.” Our efforts to create a more balanced multi-modal system and improve walk-and-bike-ability, too, are critical, to both create an environment that is attractive to investment and growth and provide better connections for the entire city to its center. And we will continue to use our platform to advocate for a balanced approach to growth and social equity, and ultimately work toward the two being symbiotic drivers of the future of Downtown Dallas.

Featured photo by Erin Hervey on Unsplash.